The Black Men's Mental Health Conference in Atlanta 2023. (Photo provided by Camillia Harris.)

As an emphasis on mental health continues to take shape in the country, one conference aims to provide resources and make care more accessible to an often-neglected group. On Saturday, July 15, Atlanta welcomed the Black Men’s Mental Health Conference (BMMHC) with hopes of reaching the titular demographic. 

Camillia Harris, founder of justUS — focused on strategic suicide intervention and prevention — and the BMMHC, created the conference earlier this year in an effort to focus mental health outlets for Black men, who have high rates of reported stigma towards seeking help according to a 2013 study referenced by Mental Health Alliance.

The conference featured guest speakers from former NFL player turned therapist Jay Barnett, Director of Engineering at Google Mike Williams, civil rights attorney Chris Stewart, Hip-Hop Artist KCamp, Pastor John Gray and more.

Personal origins

The origins of the conference started from a personal experience for Harris. After losing her father to suicide, she wondered what she could have done to help prevent it, and through her grieving, she eventually arrived at the idea of a conference made specifically for a group of people like her father who have trouble accessing mental health care.

“Maybe he thought obtaining mental health services and seeking psychiatric help would shame him. So, it came to my realization that there is a trust that has been broken amongst Black men and seeking help, whether from a church or from a doctor or even sharing with a friend,” Harris said.

Originally, Harris said, she wanted to create a mental health app that allowed individuals to express their emotions and mental state using just emojis instead of having to convey how they felt through words that they couldn’t find. 

Something changed, though, and Harris knew she had to put on these conferences that would give an open space for people to talk and share their experiences in an environment made for them.

“I heard God say, ‘I need you to save your father.’ I thought, ‘That’s weird, because Daddy isn’t living anymore,’“ Harris said. “Then it dawned on me that God was speaking about another man that looks like my father, that represents an image of my father as another Black man.”

An intentional space 

Harris acknowledges mental health issues and access to care affects many people from every corner of society.  Her decision to create such a specific conference was not meant to be exclusionary but rather a focused approach so that Black men could feel comfortable speaking about their experiences in a safe space.

She also says knowledge is one of the key outcomes of the conference that she hopes is spread amongst attendees. 

“It’s one thing to talk about mental health, mental health disparities and unmet trauma; it’s another to know that everybody doesn’t know what that looks like and what that means,” Harris said. 

Knowledge in this space looks like talking about mental health help disparities, systemic racism, societal pressures and more for Black men. It also looks like knowledge for people to recognize when their loved ones may not be doing okay and ways to point them in the right direction.

“Knowledge resources, tools that exist where you are — that’s what I’m hoping individuals will walk away with, knowing that they’re not alone,” Harris said.

Continuing the fight

Atlanta was just the second city behind Dayton, Ohio, Harris’s hometown, to host the conference. The first conference was held on April 15. After the success of the first two, Harris said the future is bright for subsequent conferences.

“My goal is to go city to city, state to state and national,” Harris said. “Houston is definitely one of our next stops. Chicago, Baltimore, and on from there. 

She’s also flirting with the idea of an app that would let users describe how they are feeling using emojis for those who can’t find the words to describe their mental state.

No matter the form, though, she wants to continue connecting avenues of wellbeing for Black men in whatever way they prefer. While the conference has already made its way to Atlanta for the first time, Harris is certain it won’t be the last.

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